In ancient Israel, there were three annual festivals that Jewish males were required to attend: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Exod 23:14-17; Deut 16:16). The Feast of Weeks (also referred to as the Festival of Harvest) was celebrated seven weeks after Passover, and since the festival occurred on the fiftieth day after Passover, the Greek name for this festival is “Pentecost” (meaning “fifty”).
For Christians today, the name Pentecost primarily recalls one specific day in history, when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples, including Peter who preached the sermon found in Acts 2 which resulted in three thousand people coming to Christ.
In the early centuries of the church, Christians used the word “Pentecost” to refer to the whole season of time which began on Easter Sunday and continued until the fiftieth day, with the fiftieth day being no important than the other forty-nine. By the end of the fourth century, however, the word came to be associated with the final day of this season and an occasion to celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church.
What is Pentecost?
This Sunday marks the seventh Sunday since Easter and the day on which many Christians around the world celebrate the Day of Pentecost. Why is it important to celebrate this day?
First, Pentecost marks the fulfillment of an important Old Testament promise. In the Old Testament, we see the Holy Spirit active among God’s people (Exod 36:1; Num 11:17 etc.) But the Spirit would only indwell certain people at certain times in Israel. Moses expressed his desire that God would put his Spirit on all his people, and many centuries later, the prophet Joel says that God will one day do this very thing:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter says that God has fulfilled this promise (Acts 2:14-21). Because of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, all of God’s people are now permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is a wonderful time to praise God for this truth. Because we are indwelt by the Spirit, we are assured of our status as sons and daughters of God, and we bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Rom 8:16; Gal 5:22-26)
Second, the Day of Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit is not just at work bearing fruit in me. It’s about how the small group of Jesus’ followers went from being fearful to bold witnesses for Jesus. It’s about how this group of about 120 became a group of thousands, continued to grow even larger throughout the book of Acts, and continues to grow today. It’s about how the Spirit forms all Christians into one body (1 Cor 12:4-31), full of many members but united in purpose.
In other words, the day of Pentecost reminds us that the Christian life is not about “me and Jesus” but about Jesus and his group of followers called the “church”. Laurence Stookey writes:
“Participation [in the church] is not something we do on the basis of personal choice or need; participation in the Body of Christ is inherent in being Christian. The church, not the individual, is the irreducible unit of Christianity…Christians participate in the church not so much for what they can get as for what they can give, for what they can offer as an alternative to the dominant ways of the world.”
And Robert Webber has written: “Christians have always marked Pentecost Sunday as the birthday of the church. The church is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the continuation of the presence of Jesus in and to the world.”
The Day of Pentecost is therefore an opportunity to remember that we are part of a body. It’s a challenge to the individualism of our age and an opportunity to focus on ways to serve others. It’s a moment to pray that we as a church would be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)
Finally, the Day of Pentecost reminds us to live with an eye toward the future. The Bible refers to the time between the Spirit’s arrival and Jesus’ second coming as “the last days” (Acts 2:17). In this time of world history, in which Spirit-empowered Christians carry on Christ’s work, we wait for his return when he will bring judgment on all evildoers and a new heavens and new earth for his people (2 Pet 3:10-13).
A Prayer for Pentecost Sunday
“O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (From The Book of Common Prayer)